WASHINGTON – The new head of the EPA is a former Senate staffer who has worked behind the scenes to quash climate change legislation and promote coal.
Andrew Wheeler, 53, now the Environmental Protection Agency’s No. 2 official, will take over Monday as acting administrator following the resignation of Scott Pruitt. Wheeler could bring a quiet effectiveness to the top job that some environmentalists say they fear will make him a more formidable foe than Pruitt.
“There is no time for celebration. We need to keep up our intense vigilance because the Trump administration’s anti-environmental, anti-public health deregulatory agenda continues,” said Tom Pelton with the Environmental Integrity Project. Wheeler, he said, “has a background just as biased toward industry as Scott Pruitt, so we and other environmental advocates are going to have to watch Wheeler just as closely as we did his former boss.”
Wheeler has wedded himself to President Donald Trump and Pruitt’s environmental agenda -- which has won him the backing of industry. And in a June 27 interview, Wheeler said he’s proud of his lobbying past. Although he says being called a “coal lobbyist,” isn’t derogatory, it irritates him because his advocacy on energy and environmental issues was broader than any single issue.
Wheeler said his priorities at the EPA include boosting certainty around environmental permitting and enforcement actions. Delays in getting essential permits -- or decisions about them -- especially hurt small businesses, he said.
Wheeler also says he wants the EPA to get better at telling affected communities about potential risks in straightforward, easy-to-understand ways -- erring on the side of speed, even if the agency must correct information later on.
Trump praised Wheeler, telling reporters on Air Force One Thursday that the incoming acting administrator is “a very environmental person.”
“Andy is going to do a great job,” he said.
Stephen Brown, a vice president of federal government affairs with refiner Andeavor, said it’s doubtful the change at the top of the EPA will dramatically shift the agency’s policy direction under Trump. Some changes may even be easier, he said.
"The agency will likely run smoother and generate less collateral baggage when moving major initiatives," Brown said by email. “Andy knows how to make the trains within the agency and in the political arenas run on time.”
Wheeler’s entire professional life has been tethered to the EPA, beginning in 1991, when he was hired for a non-political job focusing on toxic chemicals.
After four years working at the EPA under former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, he shifted to Capitol Hill, working for Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. That included time as an adviser to Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who famously carried a snowball on to the Senate floor to dispute the impacts of climate change.
After Wheeler left Capitol Hill in 2009, he took on a cadre of lobbying clients, eventually leading FaegreBD Consulting’s energy and environment practice group. His job was dedicated to methodically and deliberately pursuing policy outcomes for chemical manufacturer Celanese Corp., uranium miner Energy Fuels Resources Inc., utility holding company Xcel Energy Inc. and other
Wheeler lobbied the Trump administration last year to take emergency action to shore up coal-fired power plants on behalf of coal producer Murray Energy Corp. Wheeler also arranged at least one meeting last March between the company’s chief executive officer, Robert E. Murray, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry to press for a host of regulatory actions, according to newly disclosed correspondence.
As EPA’s deputy administrator, Wheeler says he was recused from administration deliberations over possible intervention to stem the closing of coal and nuclear power plants, including at least one interagency meeting on the issue. Wheeler allows that he "probably could" get involved with the subject under the strict terms of a recusal statement that allows him to sometimes participate in particular matters of general applicability, but he vowed not to since he lobbied on the issue.
Wheeler has a dry humor and a highly cultivated skill for deeply listening to colleagues and subordinates, said Matt Dempsey, a former Senate staffer who also worked for Inhofe. Wheeler knows how to "avoid problems" and "work with people" to achieve enduring changes, Dempsey said.
"He’s trying to make dramatic changes -- but ones that will stick," Dempsey said. "The kind of change he’s bringing is long-lasting."
Some conservatives fret that Wheeler’s deep ties to the EPA -- and his reputation as having respect for the agency as an institution -- could discourage him from broadly overhauling the agency and its policies.
“Andy’s principal advantage is that he has a deep and historical knowledge of many of the issues facing the agency,” said Republican energy strategist Mike McKenna. “His principal challenge will probably be the need to balance concern for the institution with a desire to execute the president’s agenda.”
Although Wheeler collaborated with Democrats to pass highway bills and water infrastructure legislation, some of his biggest environmental policy achievements may be in what he blocked from happening. For instance, Wheeler helped kill legislation to put a cap on carbon dioxide emissions in 2008 by emphasizing how the proposal could boost the cost of energy, making any vote to support it politically risky as gasoline prices spiked.
Wheeler appears to share none of the personality traits and habits that got Pruitt into hot water.
Unlike Pruitt, who did not aggressively consult with EPA’s career employees, Wheeler has sought them out. And he has drawn on his EPA work history to try and win trust with career employees at the agency amid staff cutbacks and concerns the EPA is retreating from the fight against climate change.
"The career employees at EPA are some of the most dedicated employees in the federal government because they grow up wanting to do something for the environment and that’s why they come here," he said in a June 27 interview.
While Pruitt toured the country to highlight big policy initiatives for farmers and oil drillers, Wheeler eschews the limelight with a humility cultivated by years on Capitol Hill, where congressional aides know their role in meetings is often to hug the wall, not take a seat at the table.
“He is level-headed, soft-spoken and knows how to get things done” said Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “During his tenure on the committee, he helped the senator defeat ruinous cap-and-trade legislation and also pass major energy legislation with bipartisan support.”
There is no doubt Wheeler shares many of Pruitt’s views. In 2010, Wheeler took aim at the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, saying it was functioning "more as a political body than a scientific body," and had "blurred the lines between science and advocacy" so much that its scientific conclusions were unreliable.